Konrad Lorenz: biography and theory of the father of ethology

Konrad Lorenz, author of influential books on animal behavior and winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is considered one of the fathers of modern ethology, the science that analyzes animal behavior using techniques specific to biology and psychology.

In this article we will talk about the biography of Konrad Lorenz and his most important theoretical contributions, In particular the concept of imprint and other key developments in the field of ethology. For this last aspect, we will do a brief review of the fundamentals of the discipline, in which Niko Tinbergen also played a key role.

    Biography of Konrad Lorenz

    Konrad Zacharias Lorenz was born in Vienna in 1903, when the city was still the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During his childhood, Lorenz already showed a very intense interest in animals which would lead him to pursue zoology, With special attention to ornithology. From an early age he had a large number of pets, some very unusual.

    Lorenz’s academic career, however, began with medicine; in 1928, he obtained a doctorate in this discipline, and it was not until 1933 that he completed his studies in zoology, also a doctoral student in his true vocation. During this time, Lorenz studied the behavior and physiology of different animals and gave influential lectures on the subject.

    Lorenz lived in Germany during Nazism. At the moment he sympathized with Hitler’s eugenic ideas and collaborated with the regime as a psychologist, although he later attempted to deny his affiliation with this movement and showed his rejection of the genocide. He participated in the war as a doctor and was a prisoner of the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1948.

    After his release, Lorenz returned to Austria, where he obtained important positions in various institutions related to ethology, physiology and psychology; Furthermore, he founded the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology. In his later years, he focused on applying his ideas to human behavior. He died in 1989 in his hometown.

      The foundation of ethology

      In 1936 Konrad Lorenz met in Niko Tinbergen, who was also an ornithologist and biologist. The studies with geese that they carried out together constituted the starting point of the discipline whose foundation is attributed to these authors: ethology, based on the scientific study of animal behavior, especially in the natural environment.

      Although the contributions of authors such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin are obvious antecedents of modern ethology, this science only began to develop and become popular as we know it today when Lorenz and Tinbergen were educated, first in Europe. and later also in the United States.

      Ethology is essentially subordinate to biology, although it also has a very relevant relationship with psychology. In this sense, ethology focuses on the behavior of non-human animals, while comparative psychology is more interested in the similarities and differences between it and that of our species.

      A fundamental concept of ethology is that of fixed behavioral models, Posed by Konrad Lorenz and his teacher Oskar Heinroth. These are instinctive, pre-programmed responses that occur in response to specific environmental stimuli; this would include, for example, the mating rituals of many types of birds.

      The imprint phenomenon

      By observing the behavior of the newborn ducks and geese, Lorenz detected an extremely striking behavior: When they emerged from the shell, the animals followed the first moving object they saw, whether it was of their mother or not. Lorenz said “imprint” on this biologically prepared behavior model.

      But the influence of the imprint did not stop after birth. Lorenz noticed that the young established a very close social bond with the humans they imprinted, to the point that when they matured they tried to mate with members of our species rather than with d ‘other birds. The imprint seemed irreversible.

      The imprint is a phenomenon limited to a small number of species; it does not occur in all animals, not even in all birds. However, this concept served as the basis for Lorenz’s hypothesis on fixed patterns of behavior, which have a broader character, and as the cornerstone of his contributions to ethology in general.

      Lorenz’s contributions around imprinting and other similar phenomena were opposed to behaviorism, which rejected the role of instincts in behavior, especially that of human beings. Ethology has contributed to the understanding of the biological bases of behavior and the proximity between people and other animals.

        Implications for psychology

        Konrad Lorenz’s work has served to establish a relationship between zoology and behavioral sciences. Studying the footprint, in turn, helps to understand that genetics are usually not expressed unilaterally, But it needs the presence of an environment “predicted” by evolution but which does not always occur.

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